At Rutgers Law School, Justice Ginsburg's Legacy Is Personal

Law360 (September 23, 2020, 6:42 PM EDT) -- Decades before the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a feminist icon on the nation's highest court, her fight for gender equality was evident during her time as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she advised students on what ultimately became the first legal journal focusing exclusively on women's rights.

The year was 1970, and Rutgers Law student Elizabeth Langer was struggling to find funding, office space and a professor willing to mentor the students behind the Women's Rights Law Reporter. The women's rights movement was still largely considered a passing fad unworthy of significant investment, Langer recalled during an interview with Law360.

But the journal took shape thanks to grants, the donation of a classroom and then-Prof. Ginsburg, who assumed the role of faculty adviser. Langer said Justice Ginsburg, whose time at Rutgers spanned from 1963 to 1972 at the Newark campus, was intrigued by the effort dedicated solely to women's legal rights even though her academic focus was civil procedure, comparative law and conflict of laws.

Justice Ginsburg, whose Sept. 18 death from cancer complications at age 87 sparked widespread remembrances of her feminist legacy, said as much in a Rutgers-produced film commemorating the university's 250th anniversary in 2016.

"There was precious little about women's place in the world, where all doers and actors were male," she recalled in "Our Revolutionary Spirit" of the existing literature at the time. "Rutgers students sparked my interest and aided in charting the course I then pursued." 

As an adviser to the WRLR, which is still operating, the future justice helped produce a "great deal of original thought and writing" and gave the journal the credibility it needed, according to Langer, who was a coordinating editor at the journal.

"She was very adamant about doing things absolutely properly and not cutting corners," said Langer, who retired from law in 2008 and is now an artist in Massachusetts. "She was always there when we needed her. She had an incredible sense of the law, a really wonderful grasp of cases."

The first issue of WRLR, published in the spring of 1972, featured a piece on Reed vs. Reed , a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case in which Ginsburg successfully represented a woman seeking to strike down Idaho's bias toward men as estate administrators.

Langer herself had turned to law school after struggling in a male-dominated career landscape, despite her cum laude history degree from Barnard College. At the time Langer was enrolled, the Rutgers Law student body was only 20% female — and that was still considered progress, she noted. Today, that percentage is nearly 50%, Rutgers officials said.

Justice Ginsburg's support of women extended beyond the classroom and WRLR, according to retired elder law attorney Marilyn Askin. A student in the future justice's classes in 1967 and 1969, Baskin was juggling law school and raising small children while her husband — now-retired Rutgers Law Prof. Frank Askin — was busy with work. Concerned, the professor connected the couple with an au pair she'd met in Sweden while conducting research for a book on comparative law.

As for Justice Ginsburg's teaching style, Marilyn Askin described her as reserved yet resolute.

"She was so focused that if a student would raise a hand in the middle of a discourse, she wouldn't answer him until she finished what she had to say," she told Law360.

Frank Askin, who was also a student of Justice Ginsburg's and later became her co-counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said he wants Rutgers Law to be renamed after the late justice.

"She was brilliant," he told Law360, adding that she mentored him when he began teaching civil procedure.

Today, Rutgers Law offers courses covering topics such as sex discrimination, gender identity and bioethics in reproduction. Such courses would never have been taught during Justice Ginsburg's time at the school, and exist in part because of her efforts, says Rutgers Law Co-Dean Kimberly Mutcherson, who is the school's first Black female LGBTQ dean.

"There are very few courses in which, if you're teaching them the right way, you're not talking about gender. To me, it permeates the law," Mutcherson told Law360.

Reflecting on the late justice's body of work, Mutcherson said she is awestruck that Justice Ginsburg was able to invoke her own legal reasoning in Reed v. Reed, her earliest courtroom triumph for women, when authoring the majority opinion in the 1996 case of U.S. v. Virginia Military Institute , in which the Supreme Court struck down the institute's men-only admission policy.

The jurisprudence around issues of gender that Justice Ginsburg helped build has since influenced other areas of equality law, according to Rutgers Law Prof. Katie Eyer, an anti-discrimination law teacher, scholar and litigator. One recent example is the Supreme Court's June decision in Bostock v. Clayton County , in which the justices ruled that federal protections against gender bias extend to the LGBTQ community.

Bostock and other LGBTQ legal victories stand on the shoulders of sex discrimination protections established in part by Justice Ginsburg's contributions, Eyer told Law360. 

"Had she not come to Rutgers, it's entirely possible she might have taken a different path and we would not have this history, which is quite remarkable," Eyer said.

--Editing by Alanna Weissman and Emily Kokoll.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Marilyn and Frank Askin's last name. The error has been corrected. 

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